The wrong decision for the North Atlantic right whale

Only 300-400 right whales still swim the waters of the North Atlantic. The species (Eubalaena glacialis) has become so rare that conservationists fear the death of even a single breeding female could put the whale on an unstoppable spiral toward extinction.

The biggest threat to the North Atlantic right whale comes from collisions with shipping vessels. An average of one whale a year is reported killed after colliding with large ships, but it's suspected that this number is actually higher.

To help diminish this threat, conservationists have spent years fighting for rules that would force shipping vessels to slow down in waters populated by the North Atlantic right whale. These efforts culminated in June 2006, when the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed new rules requiring large ships to slow down near key ports in certain times of the year when right whales were likely to be present. These rules were submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in January 2007.

Fast forward 18 months. OMB reviews normally take 90 days, and must be reviewed by law within 120 days. And yet the White House (specifically Dick Cheney's office) held up any decision for well over a year, until a watered-down rule was finally released this week.

The new proposal still requires large ships to reduce their speed to 10 knots in areas known to be populated by North Atlantic right whales, but shrinks the zone to just 23 miles from port. The previous recommendations, heavily supported by scientists, required a 34-mile-wide protection zone. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says this new zone covers 83% of all right whale sightings -- not nearly enough to protect the entire species.

The World Shipping Council praises the new rules, but as we wrote back in May, the Chamber of Shipping of America lent its support to the old rules, saying any costs would be "worth the benefits."

The public once again has an opportunity to comment on this new proposal -- even though more than 5,000 comments (PDF) were collected before the previous rules were finalized. And it's obvious that no matter how many more comments come in, Cheney and his team of cronies just won't listen.

Is this the end of the North Atlantic right whale? Sadly, only time will tell.